In 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen has given us a story that really needed telling. Slavery has lurked in the dark side of American history for hundreds of years, yet its treatment in film has been surprisingly lacking. On a single hand I can count the number of modern films and series that have directly addressed the subject (Glory, Amistad, Django Unchained, and Roots being the ones that immediately come to mind). Despite this, there are countless stories from this era in need of telling. The tale of Solomon Northup, a freeborn African-American from New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into bondage for twelve terrible years, has been begging to be recounted to a wider audience. Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave, though, does not mark the first time that Northup’s story has graced the screen. In 1984, his autobiography of the same name was adapted for PBS under the title Solomon Northup’s Odyssey (later Half Slave, Half Free). Starring Avery Brooks (of Star Trek: DS9 fame) in the title role, the made-for-TV film was commended as being beautiful in its own right, yet it steers clear of the sheer brutality of Steve McQueen’s most recent creation.
While it admirably portrays the horrors of slavery in an unflinching light, 12 Years A Slave does offer some restraint in its musical accompaniment. The pairing of director Steve McQueen and composer Hans Zimmer wasn’t all that hard to foresee; some may even argue that it was inevitable. McQueen has attested to the fact that he’s a great fan of the composer’s work and Harry Escott’s score for the director’s last film, Shame, drew heavily from Zimmer’s The Thin Red Line. The initial trailer for 12 Years A Slave gave us hints as to how this partnership would manifest itself, containing excerpts from "Journey to the Line" from The Thin Red Line and "Time" from Inception. Indeed, Zimmer proceeds in the manner of "Journey to the Line", "Time", and The Lone Ranger's "Home" for the majority of 12 Years A Slave, but in doing so he also perfects that sound for a more intimate ensemble.
A marked change from some of his other scores this year, Hans Zimmer approaches 12 Years of Slave with a very light touch. His work here is rarely heavy-handed and blends beautifully with the striking visuals, never overpowering the film's fantastic performances and only offering minor nudges to get the tears flowing when absolutely necessary. As I’ve alluded thus far, 12 Years A Slave is dominated by a single theme, that of Solomon Northup. An elegiac piece for strings, its slow chord progressions remind of "Time", "Journey to the Line", and particularly "Home", but still feel appropriate here. "Nothing to Forgive" ("Solomon" on the commercial soundtrack release) presents us with the theme’s most full-bodied performance, but it crops up so many times during the score that you can choose from any one of fourteen tracks to hear echoes of it. It appears on delicate piano in "Eliza Flashback", deep, rumbling cellos in "Soap" and "Solomon in Chains", spectral vocals in "Devastated Crops", and fragile strings in more tracks than I can relate. It is sometimes tenderly benign, often times mournful, and on select occasions even robust and faintly hopeful, but it always sympathizes with Solomon and his unfathomable plight.
Though 12 Years A Slave is largely monothematic, there are a few more ideas present in the score that are worthy of addressing. A memorable musical moment in the film is contained in "Boat Trip to New Orleans", which accompanies Solomon’s abduction and forceful transportation to the antebellum south. This scene is distinct for its extraordinarily effective matching of music and image. Emphasizing the confusion and terror of the slaves' passage, we rarely see the riverboat itself, only catching brief, sporadic glimpses of its immense paddlewheel chopping through the water in perfect synchronization with the crashes, bangs, and bellowing blasts of Zimmer’s music. An unusual standout in Zimmer's score, "Boat Trip to New Orleans" is a frenzied, violent, overwhelming, and genuinely intimidating piece of music. The likes of "River Rafting Claps", Escape Sequence", "Plantation A", and "Preparing for Travel" are conversely tedious and vexing but have their understandable place in the film, while the ambient, percussive "Time Passing Sequence" is so restrained that it’s almost imperceptible in the film. The brief, establishing cue "Arrival in Washington" (strangely included over "Boat Trip to New Orleans" on the commercial album under the title "Washington") plays like source music as its small string ensemble waltzes about and the lovely, reserved twinkling of "Bedtime" makes for a welcomed bit of innocence and warmth.
When all is said and done, Hans Zimmer's 12 Years A Slave will be a minor feather in the composer's already packed cap, but it's still an effective addition to this harrowing and important film. The official "Music From and Inspired By" album doesn't really do justice to the original score, omitting all but four minutes of Zimmer's material (though it's still a worthwhile purchase). Since we are unlikely to get an official release of the score, I'd recommend tracking down the "For Your Consideration" Promo Score for a more comprehensive look at Zimmer's commendable work. The score certainly accents McQueen's beautiful, harrowing picture well, operating as a four-star score in film, yet out of context it can become a little redundant as it continuously returns to an idea we've heard from the composer time and time again (pun not intended). Nevertheless, Hans Zimmer's 12 Years a Slave is a simple and reserved, but often powerful score for one of the year's best films. Though many will debate whether it's up to Oscar standards (or whether it could even be considered given its striking similarity to The Lone Ranger's "Home"), I wouldn't be too surprised if the Academy sides in favor of it.
A Few Recommended Tracks: (on the FYC Promo Score) "Bedtime", "Boat Trip to New Orleans", "Solomon in Chains", "Nothing to Forgive"
Label: FYC Promo Score not officially released but can be found HERE; "Music From and Inspired By" Album released by Columbia
Availability: 21 track "For Your Consideration" Promo Score featuring Hans Zimmer's original score (not released for retail); 16 track "Music From and Inspired By" edition